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In the Details 

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at Link's Hall, April 2-4

I was once asked, as I was making my way through the Palliser series, how I could possibly enjoy Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, known for his dogged habit of writing every day before he left for his job at the post office. The story goes that if he finished a book before it was time to leave he started a new one. And Trollope's acute observations of human behavior were often almost buried under the minutiae of everyday living.

The choreography of Mary Johnston-Coursey reminds me of those novels. Not in any obvious way--Trollope detailed social and political life, and Johnston-Coursey homes in on the emotional and spiritual. But both break down the flow of existence, especially domestic life, and find an inexhaustible variety and suspense in the unfolding details: the surface may seem busy and commonplace, but underneath is something profound.

Johnston-Coursey--who lived in Chicago for three years but now heads a group, Kinetic Cafe, based in Salt Lake City--takes a natural athlete's delight in the body's strength and flexion. More important, she sees the body as a conduit of the spiritual. That way of thinking has produced a stern purist's approach, an insistence that dance by itself can accomplish any goal. The four works at Link's Hall showed that Johnston-Coursey is branching out a bit, however--the newest ones use language, in voice-over or spoken by the dancers, and props: bundles of clothes, a chair, a newspaper.

Together these dances trace a journey from community to individual experience and back to community. The first, a quartet called She Was Whirling When I Caught Her (1992), is lighthearted and literally floaty: in a wonderful moment early on, one dancer (Cara Schwindt) throws clothes into the air while the other three (Rebecca Keene Forde, Eleni Kambouris, and Eva Miller Kauffman) sit and lift both arms and legs, so we see a gleeful rain of bright bits of cloth and the dancers poised and lifted as if to receive them. Later they paw through the clothes, holding them up to themselves or tossing them aside like girls at a slumber party or women at a final-markdown sale. The layered, lilting singing near the end also buoys the dance. At its heart are two playful, affectionate duets, during which one dancer pushes the other or places a cheek lovingly against the other's nape.

Forde is increasingly isolated in She Was Whirling, however, and stands alone onstage to begin The Dreaming Time. When I saw it in 1991 it was a trio, but here it's a solo: the individual on her own. The long-held poses in The Dreaming Time make it seem arid and taut, though the dancing is sometimes juicy too--stretched and released like a rubber band, echoing the meditative seesaw music by Airto Moreira. In fact the dancing encompasses many opposites: at times Forde's movement looks loose, almost flaccid, yet it's somehow directed too, as if an outside force were moving her. Her hands, curled or flat to her chest, often punctuate the angular poses like grace notes.

The Dreaming Time is introduced in the program with a !Kung Bushman saying: "Always there is a dream dreaming us." This idea is visualized by Forde being accompanied, partnered almost, by her own shadow. As the piece ends and she moves upstage, she and her shadow come together, an image that's recalled at the beginning of the next dance, the duet Covenant (1993): what looks like a single shadowy figure proves to be one woman emerging from behind another. Kambouris and Forde deliver two brief unrelated but intertwined monologues, one talking about her garden, the other about her cat; they're companionable without being genuinely connected. Meanwhile their motions--often centered on themselves, as when Forde roots herself to the floor by placing a hand there and moving around it--seem to express the antics of a mind in conversation with itself.

Gradually, though, the two move into a relationship: a sense of their separateness seems to create closeness. "I wish you'd look at me," one says to another, sounding quarrelsome; but later she strokes the other's hair. Later still one dancer pillows her cheek on the buttock of the other, who's in a slow-moving lope on her hands and the balls of her feet. When Forde falls at the end and is struck dumb and vacant, Kambouris looks scared: "I'm going to the store," she says solicitously. "You can come. I have new tires and I don't have the hiccups anymore."

The humorous opening of Johnston-Coursey's last dance, the four-part Episodes in the Life of a Potato (1993), is similarly ludicrous and dreamlike. Kambouris sits on a chair reading silently from the Trib business section, surrounded by the other three dancers, who voice what she's reading: an account of a new kind of potato with sticky hairs that fend off bugs. They seem alternately amused, exhilarated, and outraged by this scientific development. Kambouris sits casually, legs flopped open, till she suddenly becomes disgusted, crumples up the paper, stuffs it under her and sits on it, slides off the chair, and stuffs it under her again. She says with the utmost angry sarcasm, "You have to be patient to develop a new kind of potato," and marches off to stare at a wall.

There's something funny about the humble potato--particularly one with sticky hairs--but there's something noble too, utilitarian and connected with the earth. The next section, "Lullabye," realizes this duality, making the everyday motions of knocking at a door and sitting waiting patiently, chin on hand, elbow on knee, seem lyrical and otherworldly. In the third section, "Potatopotato," the dancers chant a litany of uses for the homely spud: hash browns, sweet-potato pie, vichyssoise, au gratin. Schwindt says the potato is the "little black dress" of the dinner table and then strikes a glamorous pose, head thrown back. At the end of the final section, "Sanctuary," the dancers are literally brought to earth: they lie on their sides, one cheek pressed to the floor, one arm draped behind them just at the small of their backs.

Johnston-Coursey often uses images of sleep and play and other things we do daily to evoke the mysteries of our lives, whether we're communing with ourselves or others. It's not everyone who'd think of weaving an epiphany around a potato.

Smack-dab in the middle of her four dances was Chicagoan Ann Boyd's new work for the group, Curtain for the Ballet "Parade". Inspired by the curtain Picasso made as part of his set for Massine's ballet, this dance dissects four characters in four solos. Boyd's choreography is theatrical, filled with lightning changes and strong poses; but the dancers' exaggerated facial expressions raised her usual drama to an almost camp level. I was unsure of Boyd's purpose, and seeing her dance bracketed by Johnston-Coursey's was no help. My unfamiliarity with Picasso's design for the ballet made any allusions to it obscure. As a result Curtain for the Ballet "Parade" seemed an ambitious but private exercise.


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